This interview with Mike Keneally was conducted by the Idiot Bastard and ‘Broadway The Hard Way’ tour photographer Sergio ‘Milo’ Albonico for a book project, tentatively titled The Dirty Dozen. That book will probably never be completed, but they did produce FZ88: A Visual Documentary Of Zappa's Final Tour (Wymer UK, 2019). And Milo has since written another book, with Stefano Milioni, titled Frank Zappa: il Padrino del Rock (Arcana, 2022).
When precisely was the
first time you met Frank, and how did you feel?
I ‘met’ him on the phone in 1985 when he was taking calls at Barfko-Swill (when I told him it was my dream to play with him, he said he was done touring forever, so "keep dreaming"), but I didn't meet him for real until I walked through the door for my audition. I felt nervous as hell in the car on the way to audition, but somehow the moment I met him I calmed down significantly – still a tad nerv-acious, but also put at ease by his exceedingly friendly manner, and I had a lot of fun through the entire audition process. It ended up being WAY more enjoyable and less anxiety-inducing than I was expecting.
How did you feel meeting
all the musicians you were going to play with (like Ed Mann and Ike Willis) –
musicians you had heard before on the albums.
Surreal! Humbling to be in the presence of these titans and I was constantly impressed by their skills, but also comforted to find that they also needed to practice things and were not instantly flawless – they were, in fact, human. And it was a bit nerve-wracking for a while in the case of Thunes, who was the guy I REALLY had to impress (more so than Frank) – he gave me a lot of grief for at least the first two weeks, seemingly just for being there, but at a certain point it seemed that I passed some sort of test for him and eventually became not just an accepted band mate (I am imagining his voice in my head right now saying, "Like I had a fucking choice,") but also his friend (as I remain to this day).
How did it feel to be the new guy, a multi-instrumentalist, in the group?
Ultra-double-bonus surreal!! I was grateful, and probably more than a little terrified, especially as at the time it felt like I had to fill Vai's shoes as he'd been the most recent stunt guitarist, and obviously it was ridiculous that I as an untrained guitarist should be expected to carry that mantle. In retrospect I see now that I was never a Vai-style member of the band – and not to say that I was anywhere in the same league as Ian, but really it was the Ian Underwood template that I was more working within, I think – the studious multi-instrumentalist doing their best to execute the composer's vision.
Tell us about singing with Frank.
At the audition it was probably the most nerve-wracking bit. I couldn't stop my voice from shaking and Frank said he thought our voices blended well together, but he was concerned about the constant vibrato – I assured him that it wasn't a constant feature of my voice!
What was your first impression
of each of the musicians you were all of a sudden involved with in such a
Frank – encouraging.
Scott – terrifying.
Chad – kind.
Robert – encouraging.
Ed – sardonic.
Ike - funny as fuck.
Bruce – brilliant.
Walt - also funny as fuck.
Paul – a pal.
Kurt – worldly-wise.
Albert – lovable.
What did you feel
Frank's new project was about?
A conceptual/orchestrational journey through the back catalogue leavened with trenchant new material about social/political concerns.
How did you deal with
the fact that Frank was a celebrity and was involved in US political issues?
Did you think it was good for the music?
I didn't think about the celebrity angle at all. Regarding political issues, that seemed to be the primary driver behind his desire to create new material – if he hadn't had that lyrical focus, I'm not sure that he would have been driven to create a bunch of new material otherwise. I was thrilled by the process of putting together Jesus Thinks You're A Jerk, Baritone Women and When The Lie's So Big, all of which I think are substantial pieces.
Why do you think Frank
decided to play so many "deranged
versions of cover tunes" on the tour?
He wanted to fuck with people, surprise the heck out of them.
All of a sudden you were
working in Coppola's Zoetrope Studios, right where the film One From The Heart was made. How did you
feel about the space and stage set during rehearsals?
Initially I found it dauntingly enormous (especially entering it for the first time for the audition), eventually found it strangely comforting, especially some spare scenery behind the stage where I used to sometimes hang out on my own, practicing and musing about the unpredictable amazingness of fate.
Tell us about the crew:
Bob Stone, Bob Rice, Merl Saunders – and Mark Pinske, if was he still around
before the tour?
Bob Stone was a pal, a funny, sardonic and entertaining guy to hang out with. Bob Rice I think I had a particular connection with because he was the only other person in the room for my audition (other than Frank and my brother Marty) and I felt that connection throughout the experience. He also had a habit of saying, "nice Alien" to me after every time I managed to make it through Alien Orifice without a significant fuckup, and I found myself craving that validation enough to make me push that much harder to execute it correctly. Merl Saunders was an utter sweetheart, elegant and capable, and I loved him and was grateful to have him in my corner tech-wise. Mark was not there, and I'm very saddened to learn that he's just passed[i] – never met the man. Marque Coy WAS there and was an unfailingly cheerful presence – I liked being on the side of the stage next to the monitor desk, I found it comforting to see his smile just offstage.
How was your
relationship with Gail?
Absolutely fine. I had a lot of regard/respect for her, and still do.
What gear did you bring
to the gig?
Not much that actually remained on the gig...I showed up with a G&L Strat-style guitar and a Roland JC amp, which all got replaced by Frank's gear. Didn't bring a keyboard, played Frank's Yamaha DX5 all the way through the experience.
What gear on stage did
I loved the fact that the Synclavier was there, and that Frank had that tool at the ready. So much sound available for improvs. Ed's banks of sound effects were also a delight to me.
Were you surprised by
Frank's ‘no repeats guarantee’, whereby he would announce that separate shows
at the same venue would feature entirely different set-lists (Wembley and The
Ahoy come to mind)?
I'm sure I expected nothing less.
We know that Ed and
Scott have long since kissed and made up, but how good was it to see them step
on stage together for the first time since 1988 on The Bizarre World Of Frank Zappa tour?
Glorious, beautiful. A highlight of that whole experience for me.
Do you remember the last
time you spoke to Frank?
Yep – we hung out listening to his collection of R&B 45s, and he took great pleasure in playing me songs that provided conceptual continuity clues to items from his catalogue – I went apeshit when he played me Dog Patch Creeper[ii] and I heard that melody from Tryin' To Grow A Chin. I also told him how much I loved the TV broadcast of Yellow Shark and told him how moving I found it, especially the shot of him at the end. All he said to say about it was, "It's too long." He was interested in editing down the video for release. Sadly, never had the chance.
Photo of Mike taken by Milo during rehearsals for FZ’s 1988 world tour.
[i] Mark Pinske was Frank's sound engineer from late 1979 until some time in 1987. He sadly passed away after going into cardiac arrest on 30 September 2020. The Idiot’s interview with Mark can be found here.
[ii] Dog Patch Creeper is a song recorded at Pal Studios in Cucamonga by The Velveteens in September 1960. It was produced and engineered by Paul Buff.